Communication Skills (reading, writing, speaking, listening) Romana Cortese, Ph.D. Professor of English Thinking and Writing in the Art of Teaching Communication . By Romana Cortese Stuck in a four-hour wait at an airport last fall, I was fuming at the needless mad dash I had just made because of the misinformation of three airport personnel. The delay of my connecting flight had been posted for some time, but I was sent to three separate gates in what I was told was a seven-minute connection time. I thought the final mad dash was going to be the very last one of my life, but neither the attendant at the gate nor the one at the customer service desk who received my written and detailed complaint showed that he cared. What we had here was, in the famous line from the movie Cool Hand Luke, “a failure to communicate.” Ironically, as I leafed casually through the magazines I had gathered to read, my attention was drawn to an article on communication in the National Review by Tracy Lee Simmons, “‘Getting the Words Right:’ How to Teach—and Not Teach—Writing,” in which the author bemoans the current pedagogical fads he sees today about teaching writing, where sweat is replaced by feel-good goals. “Good writing can only be taught prescriptively,” he says. It “involves learning rules and usages; it entails heavy reading in models of clarity and grandeur; it requires practice.” We must choose our words with care because careless word choice “is bad manners” (49). And it leads to the wrong terminal, I thought. The ideal teachers of writing, Simmons continues, are foreign language teachers. They are the only ones who can restore writing to the writing classroom because most English teachers are more interested in the teaching of ideas, self- expression, and “some have even bought the tripe of charlatans that grammar cannot be taught, only absorbed” (50). I had finally found something to wile away the time and to redirect my anger. My first reaction was indignation. I agree that writing classrooms should teach good writing but I am skeptical that “prescriptive” rules will produce the “correct and crisp use of language” that Simmons claims they will. Also, I wondered how, despite all his talk of choosing the right word, he had ended up with the abomination of “usages”! The article gave me something to think about all the way home and for several days afterwards. When the New Yorker arrived a few days later, there was another instance of “blame the English teacher”, Louis Menand, in a review of Sin Boldly! Dr. Dave’s Guide to Writing the College Paper, tells us that when he was a teacher, he “used to deduct half a grade for the misuse of it’s. He, too, denigrates the work done in English classrooms by teachers, “whose writing abilities were not necessarily greater than those of the average sociology student” (92). Complaints about students’ poor communications skills often come from individuals who are outside the profession or from former teachers like Menand who, having taught for a short time, find themselves overwhelmed, overworked, and underpaid. It’s easier to look for more lucrative positions rather than spend a lifetime correcting the possessive of it. Menand takes issue with Dr. Dave’s suggestion that a student’s essay must undergo several drafts. This, he says, is like building a “skyscraper up . . . and then … go[ing] back and …working on the foundations.” His suggestion, like Simmons’ careful word choice, is “to set down one row of bricks, and, when that row look[s] pretty sound, to put some mortar…on top of it and set down the next row” (93-94). This is a vivid but misleading analogy. The truth of the matter is that building up a text through multiple drafts has been around as long as the written word. Far from being a waste of time, it seems to be a necessary part of the process by which ideas are developed, shaped, organized and refined. The brink-and-mortar analogy presupposes that writers, having first stopped off at their local Home Depot, come to the writing task with all the building materials they need, and then it’s just a matter of arranging things in a workmanlike manner. But in fact, the appropriate critical thinking skills to make those important decisions of unity, coherence, and style to produce grammatically clear, elegant prose are almost never all there in the beginning. Writing is a dynamic, non-linear process where what is written is often a stimulus for new ideas, and where, as in a voyage of discovery, the writer begins at one point and may end up somewhere he or she never intended. Simplistic formulas illustrate a superficial knowledge of the complex work that is involved in the teaching of writing. Writing is part of communication that includes the skills of listening, speaking, and reading. We’ve known for a long time through the work of L. Flower, for example, that it is not grammar but thinking that distinguishes the weak from the proficient student, and thinking requires more than a set of grammatical rules. More recently, Linda Best’s article, “The Nature of Developmental Writing: A Cognitive Explanation with Practical Implications,” continues to support this position. The article summarizes her original research in which she compared the thinking processes between a group of developmental students and a group of first-year writing students. These students were trained to speak out loud while composing their essays so that data about the nature of composition could be collected and studied. What she found is that as far as knowing what an essay needs to contain, “declarative knowledge,” both developmental writers and freshman writers have the same knowledge, but the developmental writers lack the ability to apply these rules. They write “in a rote, decontextualized manner.” They know what they should do but they don’t know how to do it. The freshman writers not only apply rules of grammar, transitions, and punctuation, but also connect their writings to other areas (Best). The difference between these two groups was even more striking at the level of application, “procedural knowledge.” In an exercise that involved narrowing the topic, the developmental writers listed topics randomly, had no clear strategies for organization, applied rules of grammar and punctuation haphazardly without showing correct relationships between sentences. The third level of knowledge type, “metacognition,” shows the importance of having a positive view of one’s abilities. When the students articulated how they felt toward their work, whether it was successful or not, the developmental writers’ comments comprised only 22% of the responses, but of these responses, 89% were negative; the freshman, on the other hand, made most of the comments, 78%—and 94% of these were positive. Best concludes that “instruction for weak writers focus on thinking skills, offer students opportunities to discuss work in progress and explain the strategies and skills they employ in their texts, and present grammar within the context of meaningful prose, including a writer’s work.” All of the current research in communication stresses the importance of writing in context, of teaching thinking skills, not just rules of grammar. At Montgomery College our theoretical model is process writing, which we use in the developmental through the first-year writing courses. Ours are computer- based classrooms where students are taught and encouraged to use such writing software as Daedalus and Inspiration for their invention and revision stages. Most students come to us with serious writing deficiencies that persist even after they take all of our courses, but this is not to say that students are not learning and will not, in time, self-correct. Not being able to apply rules of grammar is not as serious an issue as the self-doubt and insecurities students have about communication. Taking into account the emotional life of these students and establishing a good rapport are as important as the content of our discipline. The causes of students’ difficulties with communication are many and complex. We are a visual and auditory culture, employing more and more shortcuts with the spoken word in constructing meaning—which is precisely the opposite of the discursive and amplifying nature of writing. It’s a laborious task to bring students to the point of being willing scribblers. Our starting point has to be relational. Research emphasizes the importance of the teacher-student relationship in “affective learning,” which is defined as “students’ attitudes toward content and the teacher” (Frymier and Houser 208). If this relationship is not successful, students who are able to learn will not use the material learned—which is to say that there is more to teaching than prescriptive content. “Students look to teachers for more than information. Students want teachers to help them feel good about themselves and feel in control of their environment. This is consistent with students’ need to succeed in the classroom” (216). Montgomery College’s English Department offers students a varied and dynamic program of course offerings in communication that targets students’ reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills in a non-intimidating and non- prescriptive context where creativity and thinking are emphasized. One part of this program, the Thematic 1302 courses that students can take for their second semester Composition and Rhetoric requirement, is representative of the learning that occurs in and out of the classrooms. In addition to the regular Composition and Rhetoric, which is literature-based writing, students have been able to choose from such courses as Writing about Nature and the Environment, the Culture of Baseball, Food and Feasting in Art, Literature and Film, Literature and the Visual Arts, Children’s Literature, Fairy Tales and Folklore, Pop Culture, and Film. In the spring of 2002, Writing about Mythology will be offered as well. In these thematic courses, writing, listening, speaking, and reading skills are not discreet activities. Although listening is emphasized during a lecture on content or theory, for example, students are more often required to employ several communications skills at once. As the professor speaks, students take notes. Often, the professor uses overhead transparencies or PowerPoint to accompany the lecture to help students who are visual learners. Many professors distribute handouts with the material already organized so that students can listen and read while the professor speaks. In small-group work, where students are asked to either analyze a text or retrieve information from a text, one member of the group on a rotating basis listens to his or her peers, takes notes, and summarizes the group’s discussion. In all of our classes students discuss their work with their peers and suggest revisions. Although many students find this peer-to-peer communication uncomfortable at first, by the end of the semester they see it as a valuable aspect of their growth as writers. Collaboration frequently leads to friendships and a keen sense of responsibility as they realize that professors take their assessments of their peers’ papers seriously and that their peers rely on their candid remarks to improve their papers. Students are thus encouraged to listen to one another and to respect differences of opinion, whether in small groups or as a class. Our multicultural texts reinforce the importance of different cultural perspectives and provide opportunities for students to expand their knowledge and increase their points of cultural reference—the hallmark of an educated person. All professors require students to present in front of the class, using either PowerPoint or other presentational methods. Students listen to the presentations, ask questions of the presenter, and assess the content and oral communications skills of the presenter. Supplementary videos, films, and tapes of readings, music, and historical material reinforce the written texts and expose students to additional listening opportunities. Guest speakers bring their personal knowledge and connections with the field thus illustrating the practical application of the theme of the course. Outside of the classroom, learning continues. The interview is another tool used frequently to sharpen active listening. The process of preparing for an interview (calling for an appointment and devising interview questions), and then conducting an interview (asking questions and listening to the speaker’s answers) train students in time management, professional courtesy, organization, and interpersonal skills. The interview required in the museum assignment for Writing about the Visual Arts asks students to interview the curator of any one of the three major museums in Houston as a source for their research project. In Writing about the Culture of Baseball, students go on a field trip to interview members of the Astros organization. This year students will go to Round Rock to interview Round Rock Express, Astros minor league team. Students also participate in Montgomery College’s Arts Series. This semester, for example, they visited and analyzed a solo exhibit of the work of Lynn Venier and then listened to the professor’s analysis of the artist’s themes and methods. With the works in front of them, students saw an immediate application of the theoretical material presented as a lecture. In addition to reading poetry, students attend poetry readings on campus, thus realizing the differences between listening and reading in the same genre. Since the thematic 1302’s are primarily writing courses, the heaviest emphasis is on writing skills. Here the ingenuity of the faculty in devising creative and meaningful assignments is particularly noteworthy. Students keep daily or weekly journals, compose essays using different rhetorical modes, write reviews of films, books, and websites, write a research paper using the MLA style sheet, practice writing fairytales, write personal memoirs, and various brief exercises such as quick responses to class discussion, short paragraphs, or in-class essays. Frequently, students engage in group discussions using the Daedalus Interchange, a chat room where all of the students’ written comments are stored for future reference. Although the approach in these courses varies from professor to professor, the underlying pedagogical philosophy is to engage students in a meaningful way that, it is hoped, will become a lifelong habit of mind. Texts and life are integrated so as to show students that writing is not only an academic activity, but also a personal and practical activity that can give them additional insight into career choices. Academically, the essays require students to organize, analyze, and assess various visual and verbal texts. In Writing about Literature and the Visual Arts, for example, students read essays about “A Sense of Place” in tandem with a PowerPoint presentation of Edward Hopper's paintings, a video about The Woodlands as a planned community, and The Woodlands’ marketing literature that consists of photo essays, newsletters, and real estate brochures. Students study these texts to analyze purpose, audience, themes, and hidden biases, and how these in turn affect content, structure, and choice of media. This analysis leads to the formulation of aesthetic criteria that are tested and refined throughout the semester. Students are then asked to write a comparative paper using the aesthetic criteria developed in class and then applying them to written and visual texts of their choice. In Writing about Fairy Tales and Folklore and Writing about Children’s Literature, students write either a fairy tale or a children’s story. This exercise enables them to consider the formal aspects of story telling—plot, characterization, conflict, resolution, and message. The interdisciplinary approach in these thematic courses forces students to think across the disciplines not only to see connections, but also to list the differences that are inherent in each discipline. When baseball is taught as “a living metaphor for American culture” (Heckelman), students apply the analytical methods of one discipline to understand the cultural significance of a national sport. If prior to taking the course they saw baseball solely as entertainment, students come away with a road map to their own history and identity, using the tools of literary analysis. Reading texts, whether they are printed, visual, or performance texts, is an integral aspect of the thematic 1302 courses. The varied content of these courses offers students choice. They fulfill a requirement and enjoy doing it, thus increasing the likelihood that they will want to learn. In these courses students read for comprehension and retention, but they are also trained to apply various critical methods such as Formalist, Feminist, Psychoanalytical, Sociological, or Marxist to see how different critical approaches extract different readings from the same material. Students learn that texts have many levels of validity and that meaning is a construct dependent as much on the text as it is on the reader of the text. In Writing about Fairy Tales and Folklore and Writing about Children’s Literature, students read different versions and current revisions of the same story thus gaining an insight into both literary tradition and the pitfalls of “correct” readings. In addition to the required reading materials, students must research and read additional books and articles on a given topic. The research paper is an exercise that combines many skills at once: setting goals and limits, managing one’s time and resources, retrieving, analyzing, interpreting, and organizing material, using appropriate tools, and creating a final product, which means using the material for a practical end. Reading skills that are practiced here are surface reading, skimming, and reading in depth. Students are encouraged to read actively, to annotate a text, and to take notes. They must read for comprehension, make connections, assess the relevance of a text for their topic, interpret texts, choose supporting materials that are then reorganized and discussed in the context of their chosen topic in order to create another meaningful whole. Finally, students are given opportunities to hone their speaking skills. Most professors require that students use the researched material and present it to the class, usually in PowerPoint presentation. By the end of the semester, the small group and class discussions, the nurturing and positive environment, together with students’ familiarity with their researched topic, have created the kind of self- confidence that in many cases results in an excellent presentation. We must, if we are to succeed, replace the negative self-appraisals that most students labor under with encouragement and positive thinking. Several students from the 1302 thematics went on to present their papers at the Montgomery College CAC (Communicating Across the Curriculum) Conference in the fall of 2000. One student gave an excellent presentation on the ogre in Japanese literature while another talked about his first visit to a fine arts museum and the life-changing effect that it had on him. Their degree of comfort before a large audience varied, but all of them volunteered because their professors had confidence in their success. Students are allowed considerable freedom within the limits of the course. Many professors use Portfolio assessment. The Portfolio places the responsibility for learning on the students who must set goals, remain engaged with their work on a semester-long basis, revising as they learn new material, making choices of organization, presentation, and content. Students have conferences with their professors on their progress, and these are usually productive speaking opportunities. In Writing about Literature and the Visual Arts students are given a handout that lists all of the elements required to prepare for their oral presentations at the conference. They are asked to explain how their work specifically meets the standards outlined in the syllabus. These conferences are also bonding opportunities where student and professor come to see one another as partners with a common mission—the success of the student. In the end, teaching communication skills is not about teaching grammar exclusively. I don’t mean to make light of students’ writing deficiencies, or suggest that correcting deficiencies is not important, but this kind of work is best done in a pedagogical context that stresses thinking first. It’s very possible to have a text that is perfectly correct mechanically, and yet it’s worthless for what it says. Instructive in this regard is the American poet, Emily Dickinson, who, among other deficiencies, did not know the difference between “it” and “it’s,” and yet became one of the greatest poets in the English language. Works Cited Best, Linda. “The Nature of Developmental Writing: A Cognitive Explanation with Practical Implications.” Research and Teaching in Developmental Writing. 13.1 (1996) 7 pages. 8 Aug. 2000 <http://www.rit.edu/-jwsldc/NYCLSA/RTDE/articles/13-1c.html>. Frymier, Ann Bainbridge and Marian L. Houser. “The Teacher-Student Relationship as an Interpersonal Relationship.” Communication Education 49 (2000): 207- 19. Heckelman, Ron. “Re: White Paper on Special Topics.” E-mail to Romana Cortese. 16 Feb. 2001. Menand, Louis. “Comp Time: Is College Too Late to Learn How to Write?” New Yorker 11 Sept. 2000: 92-94. Simmons, Trace Lee. “ ‘Getting the Words Right:’ How to Teach—and not Teach— Writing.” National Review 11 Sept. 2000: 49-50.
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